“We have a very narrow view of what is going on.” – Daniel Kahneman
My scarf is finished, but I’m still listening to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Time to get a mitten pattern, perhaps. I think of Proust often when I’m listening to Kahneman (read by Patrick Egan). Many of the observations Proust makes about the mind were prescient of recent research into the brain and human consciousness. Kahneman is a psychologist fascinated by how people form beliefs and make decisions. Proust often thought about the same things.
Of course, I’m not the first person to suggest that some of Proust’s observations about the human mind and emotions have the precision of a scientist. Jonah Lehrer, for one, says the same thing in his book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.
Lehrer is a good example of some of the cognitive fallacies Kahneman talks about. For instance, there’s “The Halo Effect”, where we may assume someone is credible, wise and moral because he’s likeable. Lehrer shot to fame with his blog, essays and personal appearances, only to be later discredited for some sketchy journalistic practices including recycling his work in “new” articles and making up Bob Dylan quotes for his book on creativity, Imagine. Then there’s the “Peak-end Rule”, where our memory or interpretation of past events depends on the most intense part of the experience and the way it ends. Unfortunately for Lehrer, our interpretation of him and his work is, for now, defined by his recent departure from the New Yorker and public disgrace.
ANYWAY, this week I decided to jot down a few observations about how the mind works, from Marcel Proust, a writer with a scientific curiosity, and Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist with a poetic sensibility. Thank you to an interesting interview with Kahneman at Spiegel, and the wonderful review of his book by Jim Holt at The New York Times.
Optimism: Illogical, but you can’t live without it.
“I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” – Kahneman
“I knew very well that this hope was chimerical. I was like a pauper who mingles fewer tears with his dry bread if he tells himself that at any moment a stranger will bequeath to him his fortune. We must all, in order to make reality more tolerable, keep alive in us a few little follies.” – Proust
The Halo Effect: We meet someone, we like him, he must be great in every way!
“Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.” – Proust
“System 2”, the analytical part of our thinking, is kinda lazy.
“Most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.” – Proust
The Peak-End Rule: It’s all about how it turns out.
“Our memory is like a shop in the window of which is exposed now one, now another photograph of the same person. And as a rule the most recent exhibit remains for some time the only one to be seen.” – Proust
Now that you know about cognitive fallacies, you’re smarter, right?
“Our comforting conviction that world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” – Kahneman
“Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs, they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them, and an avalanche of afflictions or ailments succeeding one another without interruption in a family will not make it doubt the goodness of its God or the talent of its doctor.” – Proust
Thoughts and feelings affect how you experience your life, and experience time:
“So your emotional state really has a lot to do with what you’re thinking about and what you’re paying attention to.” – Kahneman
“The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it.” – Proust
Which is you? The experiencing self? Or the remembering self?
“Experienced happiness refers to your feelings, to how happy you are as you live your life. In contrast, the satisfaction of the remembering self refers to your feelings when you think about your life.” – Kahneman
“I was not unhappy, except one day at a time.” – Proust